This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series, with expats talking about life and politics south of the border. Chloe Wolman is a lawyer in Los Angeles from Toronto.
This isn’t the story I set out to tell.
When I joined this project, I thought I would write about other people’s problems, choices, or needs. I would write with the protective distance of the third person. Here: witness these anecdotes of people I know in passing, clients I worked for but whose stories are safely locked in file cabinets when I go home every evening, tucking myself away in my nice apartment, protected somehow from any outside unpleasantness.
Instead, this: I was laid off. I am an attorney with approximately $100,000 of debt and I have no job.
I did the “right” things (a lot of school and hard work) and was willing to do whatever was asked of me (like weekends and evenings). I attended a school in Los Angeles that was ranked in the top 20 of 200 U.S. schools. Myself and my fellow University of Southern California Law grads, class of 2011, were in the top 10 per cent of graduating law students in the country. And yet I now join many of my friends who are unemployed or semi-employed and weighed down with thousands of dollars in loans.
My parents are recovering now from their own stretches of time out of work and so there is nothing else for me. No safety net, no assistance, no assurances. The debt is dischargeable only if I die.
The firm I worked for consisted of three attorneys: two partners (a married couple) and myself. There was not enough work to maintain my position. That, and they had several weeks of vacation coming up. During that time, I would be too expensive to maintain. So I apply for jobs, I “network,” I go on interviews. All the same – every firm wants to give me a chance to work if only they had a spare office, if only the firm’s income could support one more attorney. I am, apparently, impressive. But they cannot take on another attorney at the moment. It’s the economy, they say. And so I am just another one of millions of people in America with an uncertain future.
Harvey Milk once said, “you gotta give ‘em hope.”
And only four years ago, beneath Shepard Fairey’s iconic stylized portrait of Barack Obama, one word: Hope.
I understand, now, the flagging support for Obama – this sharp change from the optimism of 2008. He gave the people hope and then nothing changed. For all the little social victories I can tick off on my fingers, none matter when you are hopeless, jobless – when you do not see a future for yourself.
Fear supplants rationality. What could possibly matter when the immediate, pressing need to pay for food and housing eclipses all other values? How can one buy into the “future” sold by either party when the individual doesn’t believe a future exists? I can see, now, that the Americans who have been in my position for four years feel like they were sold snake oil by a handsome, smooth talking underdog. I can see how they might feel hopeless.
And so, I am afraid. Afraid that people’s values will go the way of the prejudices they were willing to ignore because they so desperately needed hope. I am afraid for myself, of how easy it might be to forget the things – civil equality, access to education, health care – that are fundamentally important to me, because of how ephemeral those notions seem when faced with the uncertainty of where I will live next month. I am afraid that I am capable of trading my personal, deeply held values to save my own skin. I am afraid that I could vote for whomever makes me believe that things will change – even if everything else that candidate stands for turns my stomach. I am afraid that I am not unique in this respect.
President Obama, I want to vote for you. I want a president who supports equal pay for men and women. I want to vote for someone who believes that the Violence Against Women Act should apply to all women, not just citizens. I want to vote for a person who will overturn bigoted laws so that Americans have the same civil rights that we have in Canada. I want other Americans to feel comfortable voting for progressive social changes because those things aren’t threatening if their own futures are secure, their day-to-day lives, stable. I want my vote to speak for those that cannot vote and for groups that do not have enough voters to make a difference. One hundred years ago in this country, I myself would have not have been able to vote. One hundred and fifty years ago, Obama, neither could you. I want to be able to vote for the things I believe in.
I want to know that I will be able to write the story I came here to tell.
But first – you gotta give me hope.